The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Eight – Science Fiction by Jerry Whitworth
For the final two entries of “The ’80s – Geek Edition” series, the 1980s would be a milestone decade. In terms of Science Fiction (alternatively, Sci-Fi or simply SF), it would be a resurgence of past franchises, a continuation of popular series from the previous decade (and beyond), and the birth of new franchises and sub-genres. Popular again today, the Doctor Who television series would see arguably its biggest star end his run with the series during the decade. Referred as the Fourth Doctor (having been the fourth such actor to assume the character), Tom Baker burst onto the scene in 1974 with his trademark long multicolored scarf and love of Jelly Babies candies (in time both becoming synonymous with the franchise). The series featuring a time traveler by the title of the Doctor, the main character was capable of a limited number of regenerations where should he die, he would be reborn in a new body with a different attitude and modus operandi. The Third Doctor (portrayed by Jon Pertwee) was a man of action in the vein of fellow British exports James Bond or John Steed of The Avengers, quite different from the previous Doctors who generally employed more guile and cunning than physical conflict. The weapon of the Fourth Doctor, however, would best be described as charm. A desire for exploration over heroics, the Fourth Doctor joined by his companion Sarah Jane (arguably the most popular companion in the series who would later get her own spin-off) and later the robot dog K-9 (who also starred in spin-offs like K-9 and Company and K-9) went on various adventures but the Doctor would time and again be forced to play the role of hero (including against his longtime nemesis The Master who was introduced with the previous Doctor and became a frequent reoccurring threat beginning during Baker’s last year as the series’ protagonist). Baker would leave the series in 1981 making way for another actor to assume the mantle with his time as the Fourth Doctor the longest on-air run for anyone to play the character for the television series (it should be noted, the Fourth Doctor would, however, star in a Marvel Comics series beginning in 1984). Interest in the show would begin a steady decline following Baker’s wake, though the previous Doctors returned in 1983 for the series’ twentieth anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” Baker, however, declined to return and so unused footage of his portrayal of the Doctor was used to supplement the illusion of all five returning (though, Sarah Jane would reprise her role). Eventually, the series would come to an end on television in 1989 (with an animated series planned for the following year from Nelvana that sadly never emerged) and largely remained dead until it was revived sixteen years later (save for a made-for-TV film in 1996). Another popular SF series would see its rise in the ’70s and fall in the ’80s.
Little known director George Lucas wanted to bring back the character Flash Gordon for a new generation but a meeting with the property’s owners deflated his ambitions. Lucas, however, refused to give up on his idea. He decided to take some of his concepts and research mythology and SF to develop new worlds, drawing inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (so far as considering buying the film’s rights to create a direct remake), Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, comic books (notably, Fantastic Four and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World), the serial The Fighting Devil Dogs, and the Buck Rogers serial resulting in a new concept. Beginning in 1973, Lucas would complete his final draft for Star Wars in 1976. Its story re-engineered and redesigned repeatedly, the plot featured a young man named Luke Skywalker on the barren planet of Tatooine who learns he is the son of a powerful Jedi Knight and is pulled into an interstellar adventure. Mentored by the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, Skywalker enlists smugglers Han Solo and the Wookiee Chewbacca for a rescue mission of the Princess Leia (leader of the Rebel Alliance). The damsel in distress was the prisoner of the imposing Dark Lord Darth Vader of the Galactic Empire aboard the planet destroying space station Death Star. 20th Century Fox, who produced the film, had no idea if it would be a flop, hit, or somewhere in the middle (considering Lucas’ last foray into SF with THX 1138 did so poorly at box office). When Lucas’ film American Graffiti received positive reviews in theaters, Lucas negotiated with the studio for sequel rights and merchandising of his SF pic. Of course, Star Wars would be a blockbuster with merchandising making Lucas money hand-over-fist (especially its impact on the action figure market). The film would spawn two more blockbuster sequels in the 1980s as well as a made-for-TV Holiday Special, two made-for-TV spin-off films based on the Ewoks, two animated television series, and a popular Marvel Comics adaptation (rumor has it, the comic saving the publisher from a financial downfall). Star Wars changed the landscape of American cinema and has proven to be arguably the most enduring franchise in film history, its existence thriving very much so today with various films coming to theaters in the near future. Another popular modern day film franchise would get its start in and around the ’80s.
A common genre within SF is that of the dystopia, the inverse of a utopia (which is an ideal society). Dystopian societies are often marked by disorder, chaos, nihilism, and a lack of resources. This identification largely describes the world of Mad Max, a 1979 Australian film from director George Miller featuring Max Rockatansky (played by a young Mel Gibson), a pursuit specialist highway patrolman of the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the last bastion of order in a dystopian Australia. When the motorcycle gang the Acolytes kill Max’s family and partner, the patrolman seeks vengeance against the group in a custom made police car with a V8 engine and supercharger. Wiping the group out, Max is changed by the experience and chooses to venture into the dangerous Outback away from the crumbling society he knew. Despite being extremely controversial with content including rape and violence (especially against women and children), the film was the most profitable of its kind up to that point in cinema history (a distinction it held for two decades). Hollywood would approach Miller with a larger budget for a sequel and, just as with Lucas on Star Wars, Miller would find inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the work of Akira Kurosawa for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). The film would perform well enough for a third movie and helped make Mel Gibson a household name in the United States. In 2015, a fourth film would emerge (this time with Tom Hardy portraying Max) and reportedly performed well enough for a sequel (tentatively titled Mad Max: The Wasteland). The same year George Miller gave the world Mad Max, British director Ridley Scott provided Alien.
Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett spent several years co-writing a story about a crew of astronauts trapped on a spaceship with an alien menace titled Memory which evolved into Star Beast and eventually into Alien. Ending up at 20th Century Fox, the film may have languished in limbo if not for the success of another Fox film in Star Wars. Impressed with his work on The Duellists (based on Joseph Conrad’s “The Duel”), young director Ridley Scott was attached to the project which saw the film approached as a horror film in space (so far as including the trope of the “final girl,” where a final female survivor must defeat the story’s monster/killer, in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley). Released with an “R” rating and the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” Alien was a hit and reportedly a sequel was fast-tracked only to be delayed by behind-the-scenes shake-ups. Still, 1986 would bring Aliens featuring Ripley rescued from the events of the first film after 57 years in stasis. She would have to again battle the threat she faced in the preceding work but, rather than face one alien, she now fought a hive of them. Two more Alien films would emerge in the ’90s and a prequel in Prometheus premiered in 2012. Another prequel in Alien: Paradise Lost in set to emerge in 2017. Star Wars was something of the gift that kept on giving in the ’80s, setting the stage for Alien in theaters and for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on television.
As mentioned, George Lucas looked toward several works to inspire his Star Wars including that of the Buck Rogers serial from 1939 (a pulp/comic strip character of the late 1920s that inspired Flash Gordon). Universal wanted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars for television and produced Buck Rogers in the 25th Century which saw its pilot released to theaters in 1979 months before its TV premiere (and whose box office success saw a full series ordered). The show was developed by Glen A. Larson following his success with Battlestar Galactica (which will be explored in more detail later) and would recycle many of the props and costumes from that series and whose limited theatrical release inspired Buck Rogers‘ emergence on the big screen. For Buck Rogers, the eponymous character (played by Gil Gerard) was a NASA pilot lost in space and frozen for over 500 years before being discovered and revived in the year 2491. Due to his unique piloting and combat skills, Rogers joined the Earth Defense Directorate to face threats against his home planet while trying to adjust to a culture largely alien toward that which he knew. Rogers was joined by fighter pilot Colonel Wilma Deering, robot Twiki, and sentient computer Dr. “Theo” Theopolis and would commonly face the threat of Princess Ardala. The series would last for two seasons and would become widely regarded by critics as one of the worst science fiction shows ever produced. That said, three months after Buck Rogers arrived on television, one of the most popular Sci-Fi shows in TV history returned but on the big screen.
Star Trek hit television air waves in 1966 providing a glimpse of a future for mankind of unity, equality, and a common goal of exploring the beyond. The show proved popular if not controversial tackling themes like racism, sexism, and war head-on. Star Trek featured the adventures of the crew of the starship USS Enterprise led by Captain James T. Kirk (portrayed by William Shatner) and would last for three seasons where its network moved the show to an undesirable timeslot and cut its budget to a significant degree leading to its cancellation. Running in syndication, the series remained a strong draw developing a cult following (as well as many new fans) and by the early ’70s saw conventions emerge dedicated specifically for the program (fans developing the nickname “trekkies”). By 1986, the original series was the most popular syndicated show in history up to that point (trekkies watching re-runs dozens of times). Show creator Gene Roddenberry lobbied Paramount to produce a feature film based on the series and, following its success in syndication and the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in theaters, would see Star Trek: The Motion Picture materialize at the cinema in time for Christmas 1979. The film was rushed into production and only completed days before its premiere, it would set box office records for highest weekend gross. Despite this, Paramount felt it underperformed but ordered a sequel with a smaller budget. The result would be 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which set a world record for first-day box office gross and would be considered the best film out of the film franchise that developed from the property. Star Trek would see three more films emerge throughout the ’80s as well as a new television series premiere in 1987 called Star Trek: The Next Generation with a new cast set about seventy years after the events of the original series which would be another huge hit for Paramount. Star Trek: TNG would run for seven seasons and eventually take the reins from the original series with a film continuation. The show also featured its own television spin-off in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as more Star Trek series emerged on TV as the years went by. In 2009, the original series would be rebooted for a new film franchise with a sequel in 2013 that loosely adapted Wrath of Khan. Up to this point, much of science fiction in the 1980s grew from franchises born from the decades that came before it with Star Wars being the driving force behind many advents. However, the 1980s would give birth to a new genre all its own called Cyberpunk.
In a very real way, the ’80s felt like the dawn of a major transition for mankind as the growing access of technology and the seemingly limitless possibilities of this technology made the sharing of information and expansion of entertainment a life only thought to exist in science fiction a reality. However, the climate of the decade was shaped by coming out of a period of government corruption at its highest levels and into a cold war with Russia (where many felt the world was on the brink of destruction) against the backdrop of a level of corporate greed unparalleled up to that point. These ideas would meet in a vision of a future with unprecedented technological advancement for a world surviving nuclear war and ruled by evil corporations. Largely, this vision gave birth to the genre of Cyberpunk with film noir inspired anti-heroes in a time so dominated by technology, the boundaries of reality are pushed against that of which is formed by computers and robotics. Through the works of such writers as William Gibson, Walter Jon Williams, Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley, governments were generally supplanted by corporations leaving outlaws to be forced to rebel for the sake of their personal freedom, often times by corrupting the very technology produced by society’s masters. Arguably the most notable example of this counter-culture movement was Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Therein, computer hacker Henry Dorsett Case is hired to unite the artificial intellect Wintermute with its “sibling” Neuromancer in order to form a superintelligence in exchange for being able to once again access the virtual reality dataspace The Matrix. A drug addict with few in the ways of morals, Case forms an attachment with the mercenary Molly Millions and must tackle a nihilistic futurescape where the lines between reality and cyberspace are blurred. The popularity of the term Cyberpunk would provide a label for the works of writers like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne and those they inspired with “Steampunk,” describing alternate histories of time periods like Victorian England and the American Wild West with massive advancements in technology nearly impossible for their times (often through the use of steam-power).
Mentioned briefly earlier, Battlestar Galactica was an SF television series created by Glen A. Larson that ran for one season in 1978. This series posits that mankind started among the stars and that Earth was only one colony of this race. For Galactica, the Twelve Colonies Of Mankind see their homeworlds destroyed by the malicious robot race of Cylons and humanity’s remnants take to the stars in search of Earth, the lost thirteenth colony of mankind. A mere 220 refugee ships make up the colonies’ fleet which is led by the last surviving capital warship Galactica under the leadership of Commander Adama (played by Lorne Greene). The series pilot was budgeted at $7 million and was the most expensive of its kind at the time which was aired in limited theaters in order to recoup some of the cost. The show was a ratings smash but the cost of maintaining the show while rival network CBS programmed its top shows against it saw it end with only one season despite a rabid audience that went so far as to protest outside ABC Studios to try and save it. Due to an unprecedented letter writing campaign, ABC decided to bring back the show the following year in the form of Galactica 1980. Larson returned and set the series thirty years after the previous show, several popular cast members were scrubbed (Dirk Benedict, who played Lt. Starbuck, was unavailable and Richard Hatch, who portrayed Captain Apollo, turned the show down) as the fleet discovered Earth only to learn its technology was inadequate to combat the Cylons. So, the series dealt with colonials trying to covertly upgrade the planet’s technology as the fleet’s children tried to integrate with those of Earth. The show performed poorly and was canceled after ten episodes. Battlestar Galactica would be rebooted as a new series in 2004 for the Sci-Fi Channel and lasted four seasons and spawned a prequel in Caprica and web spin-off in Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. While 1980 would begin with Galactica 1980, the year would end with the return of a popular comic strip character returning to the big screen.
As noted, Flash Gordon largely developed in response to the popularity of Buck Rogers. Further, Star Wars started in part out of George Lucas’ desire to bring Flash Gordon back to the cinema. Producer Dino De Laurentiis spent years trying to find the right director to bring a modern day Flash Gordon to the big screen, including Lucas. It wasn’t until Mike Hodges came to De Laurentiis about bringing a camp-style film to screens to appeal to the base comic strip and film serial fans that the movie gained traction. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who famously provided the treatment for the 1966 Batman TV series, was brought on to write the script that was intended to be humorous yet action-packed. The film’s plot involved Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the planet Mongo, trying to destroy Earth for his own personal amusement prompting New York Jets quarterback “Flash” Gordon, reporter Dale Arden, and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov to come to Mongo to save the world. Once there, Flash incites a rebellion among Mongo’s people against Ming. The movie performed well at box office with talks of a sequel being in the works (reportedly set on Mars) but a falling out between Sam J. Jones (who played Flash) and De Laurentiis squashed that development. Jones’ portrayal in the film was panned by critics and the actor would later play another comic strip character in Will Eisner’s the Spirit for a TV pilot in 1987 that was not picked up. The 2012 comedy Ted starring Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane would reference the 1980 film and even had Jones emerge briefly dressed in his trademark Flash Gordon costume for a scene.
Director David Cronenberg had developed something of a reputation as a horror creator, specifically “body horror” which plays on the fear of body degeneration through means like disease, decay, and mutation. However, Cronenberg would produce a film more in line with the SF genre in 1981 in Scanners. In a world where people develop psionic capabilities like telekinesis and telepathy, the corporation ConSec sought to obtain these subjects called “scanners” and weaponize them. Their plans are placed in jeopardy when one of their scanners in Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) goes rogue trying to form his own army of scanners. Derelict scanner Cameron Vale (portrayed by Stephen Lack) is drafted to infiltrate Revok’s group and tear them down from within. Shot on a moderately small budget (especially considering the special effects employed), the film was a hit and spawned several sequels and spin-offs. The film would be an early success for a young Michael Ironside who over the course of the ’80s (and ’90s) became a frequent performer in the SF field of film and television. Some months after Scanners hit theaters, another director who developed a reputation for horror would produce a notable work in the field of SF.